Social = people = personal first

I have been thinking recently about the power of social software at work — prompted in part by my post earlier in the week, but also by news that Cogenz, an enterprise social bookmarking tool, is now available as an on-premises version at a strikingly reasonable cost. (This may not be new news, but I only heard of it this week.) I have also been pondering the 800lb gorilla in this room: Sharepoint. After this cogitation, I have come to the view that successful enterprise social software has to put the enterprise last. This is a reversal of the traditional paradigm of business computing.

Since the birth of LEO nearly 58 years ago, computers have been part of business. By and large, their role has been to automate, speed up, replicate, organise, make more efficient, or otherwise affect work activities. That is, their primary impact has been on things that people would not do unless there was a business reason for them to be done. As a by-product in later years, people started to use business-related software to manage domestic or private activities (writing letters, making party invitations or balancing household accounts, for example), but these tended to be peripheral. During this time, if they had a home computer at all, people would expect technology at work to be ahead of what they had at home.

Over the past 5-10 years the balance between personal and business technology has changed completely. Driven by (a) the spread of internet connectivity (especially wi-fi) into the home, (b) the need to support other digital technologies (cameras, music players, gaming devices, for example), and (c) increased functionality and connectivity in small-format devices (mainly mobile phones), it is now frequently the case that people’s domestic technology outstrips that provided to them at work. Alongside this change in the hardware balance of power (and for similar reasons), software has also become much more focused on enhancing the things that people might want to do for themselves, rather than for a salary.

These changes are part and parcel of Web 2.0, social software, social networking — call it what you will. Those tools work because they serve an individual need before they do anything else. A couple of examples by way of illustration.

  • Delicious works in the first instance because it helps people store pointers to web pages that they find useful. Because that storage takes place independently of the computer the user sits at, it is ideal for people who access the internet from a variety of locations (home, work, a public library, and so on). Better than that, delicious allows people to start to classify these pointers, or at least tag them with useful aides-memoire. Both of those things — location-independent storage and tagging — mean that delicious is already more useful than the alternative (browser-based bookmarks). The final piece in the jigsaw — sharing of bookmarks — is just the icing on the cake. The social aspect only comes into play once personal needs are satisfied.
  • Flickr has a similar dynamic. As digital camera use spreads, people start to need different ways of showing pictures to their friends and families. It is rare that people will print all of their holiday snaps so that they can take them to work and make their colleagues jealous. Instead, they can upload them to the website and share the link. After a while, having uploaded hundreds or thousands of pictures, finding the right ones becomes difficult. But flickr offers the possibility of tagging individual pictures or grouping them in sets. That organisation makes it much easier to show them with the right people. But it also means that other people’s pictures can be discovered because they have used the same tags. Like delicious, the social aspect — sharing, commenting on, and collecting other people’s pictures — comes after the personal.

Unlike the telephone, or e-mail, which depend for their efficacy on network effects, these social tools have value at a non-networked, private, personal level. Unsurprisingly, the early adopters of those first communications technologies were large organisations. If nothing else, they were able to create small network effects internally or between each other. For example, universities were early users of e-mail because it sat well with traditional inter-institution academic collaboration. By contrast, businesses and other organisations have typically lagged behind individuals in the adoption of Web 2.0 tools. (To be clear, individuals at work may well be early users of these tools, but their employers tend to see the light much later.)

As a general rule of thumb then, technologies supporting new types of social interaction tend to be proved by use in a non-commercial context and by providing real personal value ahead of any network effect. Sometimes this doesn’t quite work out. Twitter, for example, provides little personal value without the network effect. However, I think the fact that there is such a low barrier to entry to the twitter network explains that. It also came late to the social party, and so it could piggyback on existing networks. Sometimes the social element doesn’t have a particularly great impact. Many people on flickr do not use the full range of tools (commenting, tagging, etc). I use Librarything primarily as a catalogue of my books, to make sure that I don’t duplicate them. There is a social side to the service, but I haven’t really engaged with it. That does not diminish the utility of the site for me or for anyone else using it.

This week’s McKinsey Quarterly report on “Six ways to make Web 2.0 work” includes a similar point:

2. The best uses come from users—but they require help to scale. In earlier IT campaigns, identifying and prioritizing the applications that would generate the greatest business value was relatively easy. These applications focused primarily on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of known business processes within functional silos (for example, supply-chain-management software to improve coordination across the network). By contrast, our research shows the applications that drive the most value through participatory technologies often aren’t those that management expects.

Efforts go awry when organizations try to dictate their preferred uses of the technologies—a strategy that fits applications designed specifically to improve the performance of known processes—rather than observing what works and then scaling it up. When management chooses the wrong uses, organizations often don’t regroup by switching to applications that might be successful.

In practice, I suspect this means that corporate information is less likely to lead to social interactions (even inside the firewall) than personal content is (such as collections of links, and views expressed in blogs). People are more likely to appreciate the value of other people’s personal content than anonymous material, no matter how relevant the latter is supposed to be to their work. More importantly, when someone appreciates the value of being able to create their own content by using a tool or system provided by their employer, they are more likely to support and promote the use of that tool or system amongst their colleagues. That way success lies.

But what of existing corporate systems? Can they have social elements successfully grafted onto them? This question is most commonly asked of Sharepoint because, as Andrew Gent has put it “Is SharePoint the Lotus Notes of the 21st Century?“. He starts with praise.

The result is a very powerful collaboration, simple document management, and web space management system. It didn’t hurt that V2 of the team collaboration portion of the product (known at the time as Windows SharePoint Services) was “free” for most enterprise Office customers. SharePoint essentially invented a market segment which until that point had been occupied by “integrated” combinations of large and/or complex product sets. Just as Lotus Notes did 20 years ago.

Another similarity is the limitations of the basic architectural design of the product. All products have what could be called a “design center” — a focal point — an ideal business problem that the product tries to solve. The design center defines the core architectural goals of the product. SharePoint’s design center is flexible collaborative functionality centered around light-weight document management and customizable portals.

And the fact is SharePoint’s design center hit a bull’s eye. The need for easy-to-use collaboration spaces and web sites that don’t require web programming — that work well with Microsoft Office and the Microsoft security model — has been a big hit inside corporations. As a salesman for a competing product once told me, his job is not so much selling their own product, but explaining why customers shouldn’t use SharePoint.

But then things get ugly:

SharePoint is designed with flexibility at the space or site level. It allows individuals to take responsibility for managing their own sites and collections of sites. But if — from a corporate or even a divisional level — you want to manage the larger collection, SharePoint becomes resistant — almost belligerent — to control.

The inability to create even simple relationships between lists in different spaces (beyond simple filtered aggregation) without programming is the first sign of strain in SharePoint’s design. Then there are site columns. Site columns let you — ostensibly — define common metadata for multiple lists or libraries. However, you cannot enforce the use of site columns and site columns only work within a single site collection. There is no metadata control across multiple site collections. In other words, simplified control within the sites leads to lack of control at the macro level.

These are all just symptoms of a larger systemic issue: SharePoint is designed around the site. In Version 3 (also know as MOSS 2007) site collections have been introduced to provide some limited amount of cross-site control. But the underlying design principles of SharePoint (ie. user control and customization) work against control at the higher level.

So there is a fundamental reason why Sharepoint will not be able to move from the merely collaborative to the genuinely social. It is driven by the need to support existing business structures and pre-defined designs. Sharepoint uses cannot be emergent, a key feature of Enterprise 2.0 tools (as explained by Andrew McAfee and Rob Salkowitz), because they need to be planned from the outset. In David Weinberger’s terms, the filtering takes place on the way in, not on the way out. As JP Rangaswami suggests, filtering on the way out provides opportunities for more interesting knowledge management.

1. In order to filter on the way in, we need to have filters, filters which can act as anchors and frames and thereby corrupt the flow of information. We’ve learnt a lot about anchors and frames and their effect on predilections and prejudices and decision-making. With David’s first principle, we reduce the risk of this bias entering our classification processes too early.

2. I think it was economist Mihaly Polanyi  who talked about things that we know we know, things that we know we don’t know and things that we don’t know we don’t know. Again, filtering on the way in prevents us gathering the things that we don’t know we don’t know.

3. The act of filtering is itself considered necessary to solve a scale problem. We can’t process infinite volumes of things. But maybe now it’s okay to be a digital squirrel, given the trends in the costs of storage. [Sometimes I wonder why we ever delete things, since we can now store snapshots every time something changes. We need never throw away information]. Filtering on the way out becomes something that happens in a natural-selection way, based on people using some element of information, tagging it, collaboratively filtering it.

Thanks to Euan Semple, we do at least know that Microsoft’s heart is in the right place:

…the highlight so far for me of FASTForward ’09 has been getting to know Christian Finn, director for SharePoint product management at Microsoft. Christian is a really nice guy who has been going out of his way to spend time with the bloggers from the FASTForward blog and myself getting his head around the social computing world we all get so excited about.

I am interested to see how this engagement works out for Microsoft and for us. Especially because I think one of the underpinnings of the Microsoft/Apple dichotomy is the two companies’ different approaches to the corporate and the personal. Apple has always been more focused on the personal, while Microsoft concentrated on enterprise needs. This nearly killed Apple in the years when “personal computers” were really more likely to be desktop enterprise systems. Apple has made a comeback on the back of increased personalisation of technology. Can Microsoft work out how that is done?

Thinking about ownership

Back in November, Mireille Jansma mentioned on Twitter that David Weinberger had suggested that the act of public sharing could effectively transfer ownership to the public. Since then I have been pondering the nature of ownership in an environment where collaboration and knowledge sharing is increasing. This post contains some of those thoughts in a more or less structured form.

[Just so we know where we are, it is important to note from the outset that my understanding is that IP law (in most jurisdictions) provides that material produced by employees as part of their employment becomes the intellectual property of the employer. (If this is significantly wrong, please can an IP lawyer correct me.) However, this does not mean that your employer owns what is in your head, before it is crystallised into something tangible as a consequence of  the employer’s instructions.]

The comment of David Weinberger’s came during the online conference Corporate Learning Trends and Innovation 2008. It is possible to review the conference, but the recording comes in a whole-day chunk. Weinberger’s session starts at about 3:53:00, and the key quote comes at 4:52:32-4:53:20, in response to the question “How do we deal with copyright in a crowdsourced world?” Weinberger started his answer by referring back to the US Constitution: “The real interest of copyright in the US is… in creating a viable public space.” He then went on as follows.

We want to, I think, not only redraw the balance… but we want to gain back the notion that we have lost in the past couple of decades that the aim of copyright is not to provide creators with a natural and inalienable right to their own stuff they create as if it were just another piece of property.

We want to get back, I think, to the notion that if you create something for the public, the public to a large degree owns it. And you [the creator] get the benefit from it for some limited term — I like making money off what I write — but then ultimately the aim of this is to get stuff out into the world that the public can use. 

I am not sure that Weinberger’s comment is as inflammatory as Mireille feared, but it is still useful to ponder who has an interest in the stuff we create collaboratively (and by this I include the joint venture of blogging with comments, as well as the more usual wiki-related collaboration).

The question of ownership and blogs came up in a discussion on the 3 Geeks… blog about the proper relationship between a law firm and the blogs created by their people. Following an initial post, Greg Lambert returned to the topic with a detailed summary of the pros and cons of personal blogging as opposed to using the law firm brand. In a comment, Doug Cornelius offered a middle way.

Ideally, I think a legal blog should not be formally branded by the firm and should not have the firm’s name in the blog title or URL. The blogger should clearly state that they work for the firm, but the views do not necessarily reflect those of the firm. The law firm should link out to the blog, but not have it integrated into the official firm site. Link the blog in the person’s bio and let the firm’s clients know it is there (but the views are those of the individual).

The firm gets the benefit of association for good blog posts/discussion and can disassociate for those that are bad or contentious.

Interestingly, Jordan Furlong looked at this question back in March last year.

I actually don’t think a law firm with more than a handful of lawyers really can blog, because blogging is by definition personal and can only really be performed at an individual, not a corporate level. A firm can set up a number of blogs for its lawyers to write, seeking brand power: a fleet of lawyers all writing great blogs on important subjects under the firm’s letterhead. But these blogs will all have different voices, use varying degrees of formality, address matters in more or less depth, publish at different frequencies — each one reflecting the individual behind it. All that these blogs will have in common is the banner and design.

The thing is, lawyers aren’t cans of Coke: a law firm can’t issue a brand promise about what each and every interaction with its lawyers will feel like. The same applies even more so to lawyer blogs: you can’t brand tone and personality, and a great blog invests heavily in both these things. Blogs, by definition, can’t support a law firm brand.

If Jordan’s last statement is true, then law firms should not be seeking to own the blogs run by their people. However, I am not sure that it is true that “you can’t brand tone and personality.” If your brand is more than a visual identity — a logo and a letterhead — then it must be about tone and personality. Those are the things that distinguish different firms. At any given level in the legal market, there is no sensible distinction between firms in the legal work that they do and the quality they produce. What does make a difference is the way that the work is done. It is in that respect that I think a law firm can potentially make a real difference by showing how it works through the way its lawyers communicate. That must include blogging — for those firms whose culture and brand support full engagement with the medium.  

It is clear that there is confusion about ownership when it comes to wikis. This is amply demonstrated by a comment e-mailed to the Guardian by a reader:

I’m e-mailing in regard to your story on Wikipedia [here]. It’s a pity there is not some clear e-mail address underneath each article so that we might e-mail the author directly. It’s the New Media way!

Except that it is not the new media way, is it? Clearly, material on Wikipedia cannot easily be said to be the creation of any one contributor. However, inside the firewall the material created on wikis probably does belong to the organisation — reflecting the copyright position I mentioned at the outset. How comfortable a position is that? Does the firm want to own something which is by definition fluid and possibly inchoate? Do individuals take the view that they are giving up their knowledge to the organisation by collaborating? I don’t know — it will be interesting to watch and learn. 

Then today, Stephen Collins tackles ownership from a quite unexpected angle. In a long and thoughtful post on employee engagement and retention, he came up with this gem:

…we need to understand that our staff are on loan, particularly the good ones. We don’t own them or their personal brands. We only have them until we stop giving them engaging things to do. We should be prepared to let the reputations of our people and the new people we can attract act as a positive influence on the brands of our businesses. We should learn from our superstars and let them be free with how they do their jobs and get on.

Ultimately, we are all responsible for the value we create. And we also get the most benefit from what we do — even if the organisations we work for take a bit of credit along the way.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

A recent exchange of views on the actKM mailing list inspired me to think about writing about my own Web2.0 experience, and what it means for me. Then the now-famous Wired article was published (no link — it has had enough — but here is a good early critique). I commented on the article’s point of view over at LawyerKM, but I think there is more to add.

My comment at LawyerKM:

Blogging is just writing. Did people stop keeping diaries because Samuel Pepys came along? Did the New York Times render The Journal News obsolete? We don’t all blog for a mass audience (I think the best bloggers actually blog for themselves).

When we write, the medium we choose is often selected because it fits the subject matter or the context particularly well. Sometimes I write in a Moleskine. Sometimes I write in Word. Sometimes a blog is best. People can’t comment on my Moleskine, and people outside the firm cannot see my Word document. If I am lucky they may have something interesting to say about the blog, or it may spur them to write something of their own elsewhere. Either of those reactions is fine by me — they spread knowledge.

To be honest, when I started doing this I did not expect to be part of the spread (and growth) of knowledge. I think this platform, along with many other Web2.0 tools, is first of all a mechanism for developing personal knowledge. Flickr,, Librarything, these are all excellent ways of storing information that we already have or that we create. The fact that they are online is a bonus — their contents are thereby always ready for use. (Up to a point.) When you layer on top of that the capability to tag your information, it becomes even more useful. I can see how many of my books have an Irish connection, for example (or I would if I had finished tagging them all), which would be difficult without the technology. Then, more significantly, these systems are open by design so that all the information I create can be shared with others.

This tagging and sharing gets better and better. One can create networks of like-minded people and easily dip into the pool of information that interests them. But this is just information. It has no context beyond the association of the raw data and some tags which make sense only to the person using them.

It is the next step where things get really interesting. One of the reasons why I started blogging outside the firewall (I have been doing it at work for some time) is that I needed to add more context to some of the material that I found online and stored in I could only do that by writing about it. How should I do that? As mentioned in my original comment, I am fond of my Moleskine notebooks, but it is difficult to link lots of different web pages together using paper and ink. They have their place, but this is not it. In order to make more sense of this ocean of information, one has to start swimming. And so this blog. Its first purpose is to give me a place where I can start to make more sense of things.

And then unexpectedly people start to join in. They pick up on things that one writes, and they leave comments or write on their own blogs. A cycle starts. Before you know where you are, there are new ideas driving new blogposts. I can honestly say that my understanding of a whole range of things has increased directly as a result of these interactions. And these are interactions that I could never have had if I had remained a silent user of Across my chequered career, I have collaborated with people in a variety of different ways — writing articles with colleagues, speaking at conferences with people I had just met, participating in Usenet and on mailing lists — but this experience has been as good as the most fruitful of all of those others.

That is why blogging will not go away. It enhances the human capacity to communicate and it does so in a fair and just way. It gives everyone access to giants on whose shoulders they can stand in order to see further. We all get better by that collaborative effort: the lone genius is mythical.

Interestingly, bearing in mind that the Wired piece promoted Twitter as the new great thing, I have come to this conclusion in part because of my short experience in using that service. That has shown me more of the people I know only virtually: fellow bloggers, commenters, journalists and cultural icons. Twitter gives more context to the blogs, comments, articles and podcasts that these people produce. With that additional context, they have commensurately greater value. 

Altogether awesome.

Coming back to earth, and to the queries raised by the actKM conversation, how does all this translate into the working environment? There are two issues.

  1. (How) can the enterprise leverage the activities of its people using Web2.0?
  2. Can we replicate the success of Web2.0 inside the firewall?

On one view, we should be concerned that people’s use of these external services creates valuable knowledge that is effectively lost to the business because it cannot be searched, stored or managed as a discrete set. My own experience makes me sanguine about this risk. If people use these tools to develop themselves and their knowledge in ways that would not be possible inside the enterprise, then the business can only be richer as a result. If they do not develop, then there is no useful additional knowledge created and the enterprise should only be concerned at the waste of time (which may well be the employee’s own, which cannot be a concern).

The second point is a more challenging one. One of the real points of value in external collaboration is the sheer diversity of potential collaborators. That diversity is most unlikely to be reflected in any but the largest businesses. This is why we need to manage internal collaboration. On that point, I finally got a chance today to review James Robertson’s presentation “Ten tips for succeeding at collaboration” recorded at the Open Publish 2008 conference in Sydney, July 2008.

James presents a really simple, but effective, model for successful collaboration. One of the most powerful elements for me was the distinction between publishing and collaboration, and especially the need to bridge the gap between the two in clearly defined ways. With the benefit of this insight from the other side of the world, I think I will be able to do some of the things I need to do much better than I would otherwise. Thank you James.

    With a little help from my friends

    Knowledge management activities in UK law firms depend very heavily on people power — being more reliant on Professional Support Lawyers (PSLs) than their US and continental European counterparts. Despite this, the recent Knowledge Management in Law Firms conference had a noticeable technology focus. I’m afraid I set the tone in the first session with a couple of case studies on KM/IT implementations, but in my defence I did concentrate on the people issues rather than the technology. After that we had many screenshots of systems, mashups, search tools, RSS blogs, wikis and more. All the time we kept telling ourselves that KM wasn’t all about technology, but I wonder whether the historically divergent US and UK law firm traditions are moving closer together. We are using more technology and they are using more PSLs (or KM lawyers).

    And then the final question silenced us all. One of the two search engine suppliers at the conference mentioned that they were accustomed to hosting conferences with the IT directors of their main customers — to find out what keeps them up at night and to gather information to drive development of their products. Coming at the end of a panel discussion focusing on how we meet client needs for KM support, I think many of us expected this statement to be followed by a suggestion that law firms might do something along similar lines for their top clients. But no — instead the question was whether the suppliers of the IT tools that we had all been discussing for the previous two days should be speaking to us instead of our IT directors. And, more pointedly, how did we feel about our project spend being controlled by someone who did not necessarily know (or at least understand) the strategic objectives underpinning our KM projects?

    The supplementary question was probably a bit provocative. I hope most IT directors do understand and buy into their firm’s KM strategies. However, there is a bit of truth in the assumption behind it. KM projects have to fight for IT time and resources along with everything else that the firm needs — from recurrent and inevitable hardware replacement to big infrastructural projects or change driven by other parts of the firm. How do we feel about that?

    Actually, is that the right question? Like the lawyer-client relationship, the IT/KM relationship is just that — a relationship. In order to prevent it becoming disfunctional (or to rectify it if a breakdown has already happened), I think it is helpful to remember two key points. Neither of them refer directly to how we feel. The two points are these:

    1. If something is wrong in a relationship, you cannot change it by focusing on someone else’s behaviour. The only behaviour you can guarantee to change is your own.
    2. The changes you make will have most impact if you understand what preoccupies the other person and play to it.

    Let’s elaborate these two points, using the IT-KM relationship as an example.

    It’s not you, it’s me…

    One of the things that we often forget to take account of in our relationships is that what is important to us in not necessarily a priority for the other person. Just as our jobs give us a full workload, and many challenges, those whose services we need to call on are equally burdened. If we are lucky, they may respond well to a simple plea for attention, but this is most likely when our needs are already important to them. If a simple plea does not work, it will not be any more successful if it is just repeated more loudly. The toddler having a tantrum on the supermarket because they have been refused the sweets they demanded has yet to learn this lesson.

    If we change our approach, we may be more successful in getting attention and changed behaviour on the other side of the relationship. If our needs are not a priority for someone else, we might be able to get what we want by framing our request so that it appeals to them more. A demand for more IT resource for KM is likely to fall on deaf ears, but a suggestion that IT and KM (perhaps together with BD) might develop products for knowledge sharing with clients (for example) is likely to command more interest. That would allow IT to demonstrate alignment to the firm’s strategic objectives. This is a similar (although more finessed) approach to that adopted by the teenager who argues that use of the family car would give them a safer return from a late party than waiting for a night bus.

    It is rare in a relationship that any difficulties are due solely to the behaviour of one party. There is usually a balance of responsibilities. If we accept that, and consciously change our own behaviour, we can swing the balance in our favour.

    What do you want?

    Bearing all this in mind, what should KM people know about their IT colleagues? What are the pressure points for technology in law firms? It is difficult to generalise — firms and culture differ — but here are some suggestions. Think scalability, robustness and support.

    Scalability: What are the implications of your proposed KM solution for more than a handful of users? OK, you can knock up a quick blog or wiki installation on your home PC, but how does that compare to a platform to support the needs of a thousand or more users? Does your ‘free’ software actually come with significant costs when scaled up beyond more than handful of users?

    Robustness: Law firms are not unique in needing high levels of IT security, but that does not mean that the demands of a resilient technology platform should be minimised. It takes time and effort to keep a system running 24/7. At the moment, you may be comfortable that your new system does not need that kind of resilience, but you probably want it to integrate with existing security systems so that users do not have to log in afresh. Likewise, IT will need to be comfortable that no harm is done to the existing critical systems.

    Support: Are the technologies that your favoured solution depends on known or unknown within your IT team? It is easy to underestimate the challenges involved in supporting new things. Once your new system takes hold, your less technically-savvy colleagues will expect the same levels of personal support that they currently get for the firm’s established systems. Behind the scenes, your apparently simple blogging platform (for example) is probably actually quite complex. Without an established body of knowledge in the IT team, supporting that platform is expensive — either in training or external consultancy. Whose budget is that coming from?

    Bearing those concerns in mind, it becomes easier to understand the IT professionals’ exasperation at comments like those of’s resident devil’s advocate, the Naked CIO, when s/he refers to IT’s weasel words. This comment is particularly telling:

    But the part of this article that us foot troops are most likely to disagree with is the idea that we are scared to tell the real story. Not scared, but fed up. Fed up with being told that we are making it deliberately complicated. Fed up with our words being distorted by those that don’t understand our jobs. Fed up with our senior managers not having the courage to fight our corner after those distortions.
    It takes two to tango. If colleagues in other functions were prepared to treat IT with respect, long suffering troops wouldn’t be driven to evasive tactics. We obfuscate because non-IT colleagues are getting worse in their assumptions about what is and isn’t a simple problem in IT. “I’ve knocked something up in Access, how hard could it be to make it work for 1000 concurrent users in a distributed environment with no performance issues?” People don’t challenge how hard it is to construct a major building or manufacture a car. That’s because those things are tangible. They can see that it’s difficult. IT is almost invisible, so otherwise sensible people somehow equate invisible to simple “because I can imagine how to do it in my head”.
    Until we find a way to address the almost wilful lack of trust and understanding of IT in non-IT colleagues, this situation will worsen.

    So the ball is back in our court. Trust and understand your IT colleagues — cooperation and effective collaboration will follow.

    (Having said all that, I still have no idea why Neil Richards’s experience of IT projects in a bank was so different from his previous life in a law firm.)

    Collaboration and credit

    One of my regular pleasures is getting my copy of The Word magazine every month. I bought every copy from its launch in 2003 until I finally got round to subscribing about 18 months ago. I have never subscribed to a magazine before, which is clearly an indication of its success with me. When the magazine launched it was clearly aimed at “£50 man;” although it concentrates on music, it also covers books and films intelligently.

    There are two things that mark The Word out as a paragon in its field. The first has been in place since day one. It is led by two doyens of British music journalism: David Hepworth and Mark Ellen. The second is the way that Hepworth and Ellen have engaged with non-traditional media. For some time, the magazine’s website was clearly a Web 1.0 production. Indeed, it might cruelly but accurately have been described as “brochureware.” Later on, the site was developed to include a discussion forum, and now boasts a blogging facility, in which Word editors and writers engage directly with their readership. (In fairness, David Hepworth is much more attuned to technology than Mark Ellen, so he is probably the main driver of these developments.) Alongside this, Hepworth and Ellen lead a regular and hugely entertaining podcast. This started irregularly, but is now a weekly feature and there is even a spin-off podcast focusing on extended interviews. There is even a Facebook group for fans of the podcast.

    In last week’s podcast, Messrs Ellen and Hepworth had an interesting discussion about the way in which bands structure their remuneration. (This grew out of an exchange of memories of the late Richard Wright.)

    Here is a rough transcript starting at 10:24:

    Ellen: I’ve always thought that the most interesting examples of these groups that don’t argue are the ones that have had the sense, early on, to go in collectively. Presumably because they had some idea of… of course the three best examples are Blur, REM and U2. All of them have exactly the same structure. There’s three musicians and a kind of singer/lyricist, if you like (although Damon Albarn obviously plays a lot of instruments as well). And they had a structure (I’m pretty sure I’m right in saying) where they divide the royalties five ways, which is that the lyricist gets 20%, then the four of them (including obviously the lyricist in his musicianly capacity) divide up the remaining 80% in terms of arrangement and composititon.

    I think that’s really important. If you listen to, I was listening to “Walk on the Wild Side” the other day: if Herbie Flowers hadn’t brought his double-bass with him, what kind of song would that have been?

    Hepworth: There is no record without the double-bass.

    Ellen: There is no record at all. …

    Ellen: Like “Come Together” by the Beatles. I have never heard… I don’t think any demo versions of that song exist. It’s a great lyric, but it’s basically just a four-four, old blues riff, but if you put in the bass drum part it absolutely and totally a million per cent transforms the song…

    It must be a very very difficult business, because … it didn’t resolve in The Smiths, did it? I mean, The Smiths rhythm section felt that their arrangement and the colour and the intonations they brought to the songs deserved more credit. It probably did.

    Hepworth: It is interesting, isn’t it, that the old traditional way of assessing contribution in music is composing. That was an idea that was formed in the days when there were two guys who sat in a cell in the Brill Building, or whatever, and one of them sat at the piano and the other stood up and sang. And they were knocking out tunes for musicals, weren’t they? You know, that was the way you did it. And they produced a piece of sheet music which then was given to someone else to sing and was sold as sheet music. Whereas, what’s involved in a hit record is everything that goes into a hit record. The song is only one part of it. The song has been written for a particular set of musicians to play at a particular time. So if you go back and listen to “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, well Brian Jones (who probably doesn’t have his name anywhere near it) probably contribuetd to that every bit as much as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. And Charlie Watts did also, and Bill Wyman. It was just a sound made by that bunch of musicians at that time.

    Later on, describing how all contributions have some value (18:22):

    Ellen: The Pet Shop Boys is a really good example of this. Neil Tennant is the main, I think, concept writer and chord-sequence writer, but recognises the fact that Chris Lowe is the guy who comes in at the end, often (as Neil once told me) having spent two days lying around the studio leafing through magazines, apparently not being completely engaged with the project, will suddenly go over to the keyboard and he’ll just play some tiny riff that could just go dah-dah, and that tiny signature completely transforms this whole thing into something that makes sense on the radio. I think that’s wonderful. It is just as crucial.

    This music-focussed discussion prompted two thoughts about collaboration in a business context.

    The first is that when engaging in new forms of collaboration and delivery, the existing mechanisms by which people get credit for their efforts may well not work any more. In extreme examples (like Pink Floyd or The Smiths), reliance on the wrong structures might be a trigger for failure. One of the features of so-called Enterprise 2.0 is that use of social software inside the firewall can have the effect of flattening the hierarchy. (Although there is an interesting counter-example of this effect in Wikipedia, where a new hierarchy appears to be developing, as Dave Snowden has pointed out.)

    The second lesson is not linked to change. The Pet Shop Boys example underlines the fact that different people bring different skills and attributes to teams. It is impossible to say that either Neil Tennant or Chris Lowe embodies The Pet Shop Boys. The group only exists because of both of them. (Sporting teams would provide a wealth of similar examples.) Equally, a business needs a range of skills and talents in order to function at its highest, most profitable level. The challenge is to ensure that credit is given for people’s work in a way that properly values what they each do.


    Reading Tom Davenport’s brief polemic on the meaning of management (and the comments on it), I have realised that some of the things that I believe (and have promoted here) may be mutually contradictory.

    Commenting on IBM’s explicit change in terminology from “knowledge management” to “knowledge sharing”, Davenport argues that (a) the equation of “management” with “command-and-control” is simplistic and misleading and (b) “sharing” as a concept is too unstructured to be useful in the enterprise (but equally, there is scope for tools of that nature).

    I think this tension between the structure of a managed knowledge environment and vague knowledge sharing is symptomatic of the tension between what people want to do and what the business requires them to do. For example, people may be very keen to read widely to feed their creativity and improve the chances of innovation, but in order to perform their primary function they need to focus on the things that are more obviously related to the job. However, prioritisation of activities that are demonstrably valuable will result in a situation where people will only contemplate low-risk strategies. (As an aside, I think this might be particularly a problem in law firms: recording time in six-minute units is not conducive to activities that are not clearly relevant to client work.) As Bruce MacEwen has pointed out more than once, this is not a time to be concentrating on low-risk strategies.

    So it is not sensible to encourage everyone to engage in what one of the comments on Davenport’s piece calls the “passive” activity of knowledge sharing. Equally there are dangers in insisting only on structured formal knowledge creation and capture. How do we manage our way around this dilemma?

    I don’t know, but I think we need to be clear with people about the limitations of all the different approaches to knowledge in the enterprise, and the consequences of their over-use or misuse. By doing this, we can help them find a way that suits them and the business. Surely, that is knowledge management.

    Reading around

    In an earlier blog post, I referred to James Webb Young’s book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, which links innovation and creativity to the capacity to see new relationships between old elements. I was originally directed to the book by Shawn Callahan at Anecdote. Now Shawn has written a blog post on collaboration. In it, he points to the use of analogies to prolong interesting conversations.

    In collaborative conversations an analogy provides a new frame for thinking about a problem. …

    So to be a good collaborator we need to have a repertoire of analogies at our disposal. So how do we do it? …

    The first thing is to increase the variety of experiences you have. A short film festival analogy will lack richness or might not even occur to you if you’ve never been to one. But simply doing heaps of new things is not enough because you can’t do everything. So the second best way to is to hear, read, experience stories. …

    But you can’t stop there. Experience without some form of mindfulness is unlikely to stick with you in a way that you might remember when grasping for an apt analogy. If you want to remember something, tell yourself a story about it that you can picture in your mind, smell, taste and hear.

    So: discovering more about things beyond one’s immediate area of work can promote innovation, and stories can promote collaboration. What more could one want to justify a wide range of reading?

    Beyond the Golden Rule

    I am still catching up with unread blogs, but I want to add something to Mary Abraham’s commendation of the Golden Rule as the key to collaboration. As the Wikipedia entry on the Rule suggests (at the moment), it can be the cause of problems when there are differences in values or interests:

    Shaw’s comment about differing tastes suggests that if your values are not shared with others, the way you want to be treated will not be the way they want to be treated. For example, it has been said that a sadist is just a masochist who follows the golden rule. Another often used example of this inconsistency is that of the man walking into a bar looking for a fight. It could also be used by a seducer to suggest that he should kiss an object of his affection because he wants that person to kiss him.

    I was not alone in admiring the late Jon Postel, perhaps the quietest genius behind the creation and early management of the Internet. One of his lasting legacies, sometimes forgotten in the rush for innovation, is found in the heart of one of the basic definitions of the Internet’s Transmission Control Protocol, RFC 793:

    TCP implementations will follow a general principle of robustness: be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.

    I have found this a useful general principle for human communications too, even though I sometimes forget it myself. The wheels of collaboration run much more smoothly when one resists enforcing rules against others, whilst maintaining one’s own obedience to the same rules.

    Web 2.0: life-enhancing technology

    A quick post to draw attention to Scott Berkun’s report from the Web 2.0 expo. Here’s the bit that deserves memorialisation: 

    The unspoken nugget / explanation / marketing line that might get me jazzed is this:

    We have always been collaborative. Always been social. It’s in our genes and it’s what we have evolved to do well. Good technologies enhance our natural abilities, give us useful artificial ones, and help us to get more of what we want from life. Web 2.0 and social media make the process of collaboration and developing relationships more fun, efficient, powerful and meaningful.

    Ok. Now we’re talking. With a statement like this I can walk the halls of the expo, or converse with the greatest web 2.0 pundit, and have a straight conversation. Will this get me more of what I want from life? More of what my customers want from me, or vice-versa? I can make tangible arguments about what I want or my customers need and sort some decisions out. But note that the statement above is devoid of hyperbole like revolution, ground breaking, disruptive or transformative, things that are entirely subjective. If you identify a real problem well enough, you never need those words: the people who have those problems will naturally find what you do revolutionary if you really solve their problems.

     ‘Nuff said.

    Document management and collaboration

    James Dellow has neatly summarised a discussion about the relative merits of wikis and document management in law firms. Reading both reminded me that I owe an former co-conspirator my view on document management systems as a tool for collaboration. I hope what follows will suffice.

    Like most law firms, we have a document management system (DMS). It was adopted some time ago as a replacement for personal network folders. Compared to what it replaced, the principal benefits of the DMS for us are:

    • capture of key pieces of metadata at the point of document creation or storage
    • an effective audit trail and versioning capability
    • ease of search

    We are now in the throes of a project to change the way the DMS works so that documents are presented to users in a set of ‘workspaces’ and folders, rather than as a mass of undifferentiated records. (The suppliers call this mode ‘matter-centric’, which is fine for the lawyers, but not especially meaningful for business services people or for work which is not a formal client matter, so we are referring only to electronic workspaces.)

    The outcome of this work will be to enhance the potential for collaborative document creation and editing. In the old network folder model, a document clearly ‘belonged’ to the person whose filespace it was stored in. Without an effective search mechanism it was often difficult to find documents without guidance from their author, and practically impossible to discover interesting (and useful) information serendipitiously. This changed radically when we first implemented the DMS. As documents were stored in a common space, people were more inclined to work jointly on them. The openness of that space also meant that people could see much more clearly what was going on around them. However, there were still cultural and technical obstacles to deep collaboration.

    In order to protect the integrity of documents, the DMS locks them while they are being edited. This, naturally, means that they need to be unlocked before being available for editing by anyone else (read-only viewing is still possible). Because of the variety of ways in which people access documents — at the desktop, through a web client, or checked out to a laptop for offline working — it is often the case that documents are unavailable for editing for significant amounts of time. This technical issue leads people to revert to thinking of documents as ‘belonging’ to their first author.

    As the DMS holds all of our documents, it is essential to be able to apply some form of document-level security. The document creator can restrict access (to view and/or edit) to individuals or groups, but typically our people have come to use this setting in a much less granular way — it boils down to a simple choice between complete openness (document open to all to view and edit) and absolute secrecy (where the document is effectively invisible to everyone else). The middle setting — read-only for everyone but the author — is also used widely by people who have discovered that the way the DMS locks documents when they are opened can lead to them being locked out of their own documents. As a result, although the default system setting is for openness, many people have chosen more restrictive settings that limit the information capacity and collaboration potential of the DMS.

    For these reasons, at least, I am not convinced that a formal DMS facilitates collaboration particularly well. For law firms, the features offered by a DMS to protect business-critical documents are likely to be more important than full-blown collaboration. However, there are other documents where a more informal sharing of responsibility is appropriate.In an environment where the robustness and wizardry of a full-blown DMS is less important than facilitating collaboration, such as for academic writing, I think a wiki probably suffices. My experience of collaboration in an academic context is limited to co-authoring with just one other person at a time. However, even this small-scale sharing of responsibility is different in nature to the collaboration I see in a law firm. I imagine that scientific papers with six or seven authors will be different again. In academic collaboration, the audit trail tracking who has read and printed a document is less significant than a record capturing each and every edit, whether minor or not. I would have welcomed being able to use a wiki page to facilitate my co-authoring activities, in preference to Microsoft Word. I am not sure what value a DMS would bring to academic collaborations that a wiki could not offer. Culturally, and technically, the wiki appears to be better suited to the flexibility of academic relationships.

    Effectively, I think the reason why this might be is that the object of a DMS is different from a wiki. As its name suggests, the DMS is all about documents (which are containers for content). I think a wiki is less about manipulating documents, and more about the content itself (and, in part, the human and information relationships expressed by that content).